Monday, 18 January 2010

Alpha cinema St Albans (& its ABL)

Have just had an e mail (along with 999 other people I assume) to say I'm on this. This is a scheme Arthur M-C. would have admired I guess - a way of lining up customers and loyalty in one early swoop. According to the Herts Ad the money is rolling in for the Alpha. I hope somewhere some workshop is already taking an order for the neon letters A..L etc

Below is an early draft of a piece on the original Alpha which appeared in the H.A. over New Year. How good to welcome it back...two world wars, a cold war and a million movies later....

Feted in Europe, forgotten in St Albans

Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, 1874-1961, film pioneer and St Albans resident.

On Tuesday the 15 December the University of Amsterdam Press together with the Netherlands Filmmuseum will publish They Thought It Was a Marvel, a 6oo page book by Tjitte de Vries and Ati Mul, on the early animation films of Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, local film pioneer. The book, product of many years of research, much of it in St Albans, is about the animation films made by Melbourne-Cooper at his Alpha studio, some in the basement of the Alpha Picture Palace in London Road, the site of the present Odeon. The Odeon we were going to tear down and replace with a block of flats.
Melbourne-Cooper, born and bred in St Albans, was the son of a local photographer. The family lived at 99 London Road (now the Esso garage). Arthur, presumably having learned the basics of the trade from his father, became assistant to an American, Birt Acres, who had a studio in Barnet, and now was by the 1890’s making short films of current news and educational interest. But Melbourne-Cooper seems quickly to have realised the dramatic and narrative opportunities offered by the new medium. In his early twenties he showed his first programmes round village halls in Hertfordshire, taking his equipment by horse and cart. Cooper would pick six boys of suitable size and weight, and sit them on the gas bags to compress the gas supply which lit the projector, as they watched the films in the no doubt crowded and smoky halls. (So much for Health and Safety.) He then set up the 2 acre Alpha studio on land in Alma Road. There is now a plaque there on Telford Court, put up by the British Film Institute.
With the money he made he was able by 1908 to rent from Bennetts, a family of local builders, the St Albans Poly, a recreational building just opposite in London Road, the site of the Odeon. He converted this into his revolutionary concept of showing film. The feature which most caused interest was that the most expensive seats were at the back. It was only experience that convinced audiences that this was the best way to see a film. But the Alpha was not just a picture palace. While outdoor film making continued in Alma Road the basement of the Alpha was a state of the art indoor studio. In 1909 the Herts Ad sent a journalist to interview Melbourne-Cooper about the mysteries of this new art industry. He seems to have been a generous and confident interviewee - ‘There are no secrets in our business,’ he declared, before a tour of the studio fitted by Messrs Tilley and Gitten with exceptionally powerful Davy photographic electric arc lamps, a current of about 200 amps, capable of giving a candlepower of about 700,000 candles. It is here, with professional working London actors, Melbourne-Cooper made films and the animations which are the subject of Mr de Vries’ book.
But maybe for us what is most touching is the Alpha Picture Palace itself described in the magazine the Bioscope at the time as ‘the favourite place of amusement of the district’. Every week the Herts Ad carried large ads for the Alpha. In January 1909 it promises 2 performances nightly at 7 and 9 with seats at 2d, 3d, 6d. There was also the Palace Lounge open to the public from12 to 10 30 pm. On January 23 the Alpha was showing a film of the great Sicilian earthquake ‘the only picture showing the burning of Messina town hall and the king of Italy officially attending the wounded.’ There must have been some controversy about the veracity of this early disaster/news coverage because on February 6 the ad reads ‘This picture is NOT fake - was photographed by A.West of our Navy’ ( so must have been all right then). By February 6 the ads carry a telephone number for the first time ‘call 152 St Albans to book’ So much, so fast. Electricity. Moving pictures. Telephones.
But the Alpha was not just a for profit organisation. It did charity shows – on February 15 1909 it put on a special matinee in aid of the Police Orphan Fund. It also realised its best audience was the young. Later the same year it has started a special children’s matinee on Saturdays for ½ d. Was this how Saturday morning pictures, that much loved institution, began?
In May the bill has become far more ambitious: The Last Days of Pompeii( a most marvellous and sensational picture) plus Oliver Cromwell (artistically coloured) and, possibly the most successful venture of all, the 1909 Cup Tie final when Man United played Bristol City (1nil to Man U. if you must know).The ad finishes

Don’t miss this Bumping programme

In the summer of 1909 (with electric fans and cycle storage offered) there is on the bill Suffragette wants a husband. And in 1910 there is a special bound programme for Ramona, made by D.W. Griffith in California ( maybe the first Hollywood blockbuster ever for St Albans ) a story of the white man’s injustice to the Indian. It gives a full synopsis of the film’s story but no mention of the director or its star, Mary Pickford. And for this there was a special no-smoking matinee every Thursday at 3.
But sadly, as for many pioneers, Melbourne-Cooper’s boldness out-stripped his resources. He built another cinema in Letchworth. But unlike the worldly, sociable citizens of St Albans who knew a good thing when it was offered to them, the church- going population of Letchworth did not take to the movies. Melbourne-Cooper fell into financial trouble. The Alpha went to other owners, was renamed, burnt down, was rebuilt, and entertained St Albans until shut down in 1995. Much of the credit for Melbourne-Cooper’s work was given to others and it is only thanks to the efforts of his daughter Audrey Wadowska and to the de Vries’s, that we see him start to get some of the acclaim he deserves.
You can buy They Thought it was a Marvel (Eu 39.50 - e mail via or you can support James Hannaway’s bid to buy and rescue the Odeon ( e-mail the Do both. And when eventually (we hope) you do stroll down London Road to take your seat in the back seat of our new cinema remember the people of St Albans who flocked there in the early years of the terrible twentieth century to be enthralled and informed, and also Melbourne- Cooper’s clever, ground-breaking films, made there in the basement studio, which are amongst the earliest ever made. And just be glad it’s not a block of flats.

With thanks and acknowledgments to Tjitte de Vries and Ati Mul

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